Graphic by Asyrique Thevendran/The Gazelle

Why Stronger Together Is Easier Said Than Done

How can we think about the U.S. election in our connected world?

Nov 12, 2016

Last week, nearly 60 million U.S. citizens voted for a presidential candidate whose campaign rhetoric was fueled by racism, sexism and xenophobia. In casting their ballots for Donald Trump, these voters essentially repudiated the core values for which NYU Abu Dhabi stands: cosmopolitanism, diversity and education.
In the face of this repudiation, we at NYU Abu Dhabi must continue to stand for these values — to stand firm and to stand together — in order to promote a vision of the world that moves beyond the parochialism, intolerance and fear that motivated those U.S. American voters.
The good news is that even more U.S. American voters are ready to stand with us. Trump won the U.S. presidency because of the 18th-century electoral college system that promotes state-based thinking over national thinking, but Hillary Clinton won the overall popular vote. In the U.S. presidential elections, a little more nationalism and a lot less parochialism would be a great step forward. But the bigger step, the one that’s harder to take, is to move from nationalism to cosmopolitanism.
In some accounts, Clinton based her candidacy on what an organization called The Voter Participation Center describes as the rising U.S. American electorate: unmarried women, people of color and millennials. In hindsight, focusing on these voters may have been her campaign’s undoing, insofar as it led her to take for granted and therefore to not court the so-called traditional working-class white voters, particularly in states in the Midwest that her campaign regarded as safe Democratic Party strongholds.
If the rising U.S. American electorate is an idea whose time has not yet come, at least in its ability to decide a U.S. presidential election, it is an idea whose time is about to come. As CNN recently pointed out, “The Census Bureau projects that no one racial group will be a majority of the country by the year 2044. Republicans and Democrats looking to chart an electoral future as the country continues to grow browner and younger will have to take heed of these shifts.”
The Clinton coalition, even if it couldn’t carry the day on Nov. 8, seems to be on the right side of history. Indeed, that may be why Trump’s silent majority was so motivated to turn out: its days seem to be numbered. What may well emerge from this demographic shift is the ascendancy of cosmopolitan over nationalist modes of thinking, but would-be cosmopolitans cannot take this development for granted.
Let’s remember that cosmopolitanism originated as an alternative to nationalism: it was based on the idea that nationalistic modes of thinking are too narrow and that each of us is first and foremost a citizen of the world, with significant obligations to humanity as a whole. More recently, cosmopolitanism has been understood as an alternative to universalism, pluralism and multiculturalism, ideas upon which it draws but with which it also takes issue. To put it in shorthand fashion, cosmopolitanism is a perspective that regards human difference as an opportunity to be embraced rather than a problem to be solved.
But as the results of both the Brexit vote and the U.S. election have made clear, the fear of difference remains a potent factor in global politics. In 1992, the political scientist Andrew Hacker published a powerful and influential account of racial division in the United States, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. Hacker argued that “America may be seen as two separate nations” and that while “there are places where the races mingled,” nevertheless “in most significant respects, the separation is pervasive and penetrating. As a social and human division, it surpasses all others — even gender — in intensity and subordination.”
Despite the eight-year presidency of Obama, recent events suggested that Hacker’s argument is still depressingly relevant, if in need of emendation. The Black Lives Matter movement and the powerful articulation of the oppression of African Americans in the United States offered by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his prize-winning book Between the World and Me suggest that the racial divide is still potent, perhaps because the election of an African American president in 2008 actually had the effect of bringing into the open racist feelings that had been simmering in private within segments of the U.S. electorate.
To update Hacker’s argument to account for conditions in 2016, however, we would have to include an analysis of the way in which those Trump voters lump all non-white U.S. Americans together. One place to start might be an investigation of the etymological and cultural genealogy of the ugly term sand n-----, which is sometimes used in the U.S. to refer to persons with Middle Eastern or North African descent.
And it goes without saying, after the treatment accorded to Clinton during the election cycle by those who opposed her, that it is an open question whether the gender gap is, as Hacker suggests, surpassed by the color gap. The things that Trump said about women, not just in the infamous Access Hollywood tape but throughout the campaign, would, in an ordinary U.S. election, have undone his campaign. But there was nothing ordinary about this election cycle.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times titled What Trump Exposed About the G.O.P., Mark Schmitt suggests that what distinguished this election cycle was its exposure of the true basis of Republican Party politics since the Reagan era: not ideology, but identity. In his constant recourse to negative identity politics, Trump seems to have intuited this fact. “It was always about identity, about them and us,” Schmitt writes. “The politics of 2016 breaks entirely along lines of identity: first race or ethnicity, followed by gender, level of education, urbanization and age.”
Schmitt’s piece is an example of the kind of critical thinking that liberal arts curricula like NYUAD’s are designed to develop. The Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the presidential election in the U.S. demonstrate that too many voters either don’t think or base their thinking in emotion, or on ideas that resist conscious articulation. Developing these skills is crucial if we are to be able to create global political forums that are based on reason rather than emotion. Critical thinking skills help voters to vote in a more informed and rational fashion, but they also enable analysts to understand those instances when voters are voting on the basis of something other than reason or even ideology.
At NYUAD, the Core Curriculum — in both its original and revised forms — seeks to train students to think critically about big ideas and global challenges, to think rationally about issues that often elicit knee-jerk emotional responses. One of the strengths of the Core is its emphasis on developing critical thinking by exposing students to a variety of disciplinary methodologies. The failure of polling models to predict the Brexit and U.S. presidential outcomes vividly demonstrates that effective critical thinking depends on much more than developing a facility with numbers, statistics and big data. What’s needed, in addition, is the ability to understand cultures — national, local, religious, ethnic and those based on other forms of identity — and to be able to think across cultural divides.
And here’s the rub: the hardest divide for would-be cosmopolitans to cross is the chasm that separates them from those who reject cosmopolitan ways of thinking, who refuse to engage in the kind of dialogues based on reason that cosmopolitans embrace. Clinton’s ill-considered, spur-of-the-moment characterization of Trump supporters as deplorables points to just how difficult it is to remain truly cosmopolitan in the face of intolerance.
How many of us, like Clinton, were not appalled by what she described as “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” people that Trump courted and incited? But true cosmopolitanism requires that we work hard each and every day to put ourselves in the shoes of those who do not share our values, that we try to understand and even empathize with their points of view, even as they criticize and denigrate us. Empathy must be our guide as we try to reason with counter-cosmopolitans and to persuade them that our approaches are better. Trained critical thinkers should be able to recognize when emotion is trumping reason — pun intended — but also should be constantly aware of the limits of their own thinking.
The most difficult thing for worldly, urban, liberal cosmopolitan thinkers to do is to learn something from those that they consider parochial. Recent events suggest that it is also absolutely necessary. Only then can we realize the lofty ideal that motivated Clinton’s campaign: that we are stronger together.
Cyrus Patell is a contributing writer. Email him at
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